Bershidsky on Europe: Police Move on Ukraine Protests
Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe:
Ukrainian police advance on protesters
Riot police moved on Kiev's central Independence Square in the early hours, dismantling barricades erected by anti-government, pro-EU protesters. There was surprisingly little violence: Despite some unreliable reports of broken bones, both sides tried hard to avoid bloodshed. Kiev residents flocked back to Independence Square in the morning to stop their 20-day non-stop rally from being disbanded. Foreign politicians such as U.S. State Secretary John Kerry condemned the police action, and Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, spent time with the demonstrators. Ukrainian opposition leaders, including boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, now say President Viktor Yanukovych has forfeited his chance to negotiate a solution to the crisis. Yanukovych, for his part, appears confident he can win without negotiations, especially since the opposition figures do not really represent those assembled in downtown Kiev. He will prevail unless the police and military switch sides. By late morning, however, the riot police had withdrawn.
RBS finance chief quits after 10 weeks
Nathan Bostock, appointed financial director of Royal Bank of Scotland 10 weeks ago, is leaving to become deputy chief executive of Santander UK. Bostock was supposed to be deeply involved in setting up RBS's internal "bad bank," a process started after Ross McEwan took over as chief executive in October, so his resignation is a big loss. It is not, however, a criticism of McEwan's efforts: Rather, Bostock appears to have been offered a bigger role at Santander, where he previously worked for eight years, just as the Spanish bank prepares to take its U.K. arm public. Getting in on the start of a U.K. bank IPO boom is more exciting than cleaning up the mess at RBS.
EU may miss deadline for bank secrecy rules
The European Union promised that, by the end of 2013, it would adopt bank information sharing rules that would make it harder to avoid taxes. The deadline will have to be moved: At the final meeting of EU finance ministers this year, Austria and Luxembourg torpedoed the rules by saying they would only sign on if the EU agrees on similar measures with non-members such as Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Andorra and San Marino. Switzerland is likely to approve the new rules in light of its recent information sharing deal with the U.S. Some Swiss banks are closing down, others agreeing to reveal client information to U.S. tax authorities. As for the dwarf states, bank secrecy is one of their few competitive advantages, and reaching agreement with them will take time.
Paris real estate prices keep falling
According to the real estate price barometer published by the website Mellieursagents.com, real estate prices in Paris dropped 0.7 percent in November. They are now 5.7 percent down from their June, 2011 peak. So far, the prices have not fallen below the psychological barrier of $100 per square foot (8000 euros per square meter), but the trend is negative, in stark contrast to London real estate, which is appreciating fast enough to make regulators fear a bubble. As the U.K. reveals itself as the new European growth champion, France is lagging behind in every area.
Chinese hack EU governments
California cyber security company FireEye revealed that Chinese hackers broke into the computer systems of five EU governments before the G20 summit in September. The countries' names were not mentioned, but according to Financial Times, they were Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia and Portugal. The hackers used simple phishing to get into the protected networks. They sent emails purportedly about the Syrian crisis to bureaucrats in the countries' foreign ministries. The officials, apparently computer ignoramuses, clicked on links contained in the messages, triggering the download of malware. Cyber security professionals believe the attack was state-sponsored. Tricking hapless bureaucrats into clicking on a phishing link does not, however, amount to the kind of sophisticated spying conducted by the U.S. National Security Agency. China, Russia and other countries engage in electronic intelligence, but the NSA scandal is not easy to overshadow.
(Leonid Bershidsky can be reached at email@example.com).